For nearly 40 years, South Texans could get their corner store candy and Slush Puppies from a gun-toting, boot-wearing, ten-gallon-hat-decorated maverick. Or at least that was the mascot of the local Maverick Market convenience store chain throughout the Coastal Bend area.
Maverick Market began in 1961, when Corpus Christi businessman Erich Wendl purchased five Cabell Minit Markets from the Hygeia Dairy Co. Wendl was a native of Munich, Germany, and moved to Harlingen, Texas, in 1953 to work as a trainee for H-E-B for $25 a week. Wendl grew up in a grocery-owning family in Germany, and didn't intend to stay in the U.S. initially. But he met and eventually married Elvira Castillo the next year.
He served in the U.S. Army from 1954 to 1956, which he credited with helping him improve his English (he was also fluent in Spanish). Once discharged, he and his wife returned to Harlingen where Wendl sold cars for Boggus Motors Co. before he got the chance to buy the corner stores.
Using savings and borrowing the rest, Wendl scraped together $56,000 and opened his new stores with 15 employees. He told the Caller-Times in 1995 how he expanded the original stores, which he described as "ice and dairy product drive-ins," into the more modern convenience store model. One of his major changes was expanding operating hours to seven days a week, from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. He aimed to grab the customers outside regular grocery store hours.
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"I will always remember the old days," Wendl said in a 1981 interview. "I went into business on a shoestring. We made our marketing plans in the hot back room of the store at Six Points. Me, Tony Simons, Ken Loosemore and Dan Zunker sitting around on apple crates with no air conditioning.
"We put in long hours, 6 a.m. to midnight, seven days a week," he recalled. "We tried new things. For a while we were the only game in town. H-E-B sold no beer and was closed on Sundays. We expanded with more everyday product items. And our sales grew."
Wendl chased the prime market locations, often scouting a property three years ahead of when actual store construction began. He told of one time moving an established store from the middle of a street to the corner. Within three months, that store's sales had doubled.
Another big boost was the addition of gasoline sales in 1969, which added an extra 20% on top of the inside sales at stores with a gas pump. Wendl also attributed his success to hiring and keeping good workers. He regularly visited each store location and visited with employees and kept close contact with store managers.
Wendl also believed in the community he lived in. In a forum published in the Caller-Times in 1979, he explained his reasoning for opening a Maverick Market downtown. He believed the company's slogan, "Maverick Market, your next door store," also applied to downtown Corpus Christi, which had been declining for years as shoppers abandoned downtown for the malls and shopping centers farther south. He polled downtown workers, visitors at local hotels, and families along the bayfront to find what they needed most in a corner store, and enjoyed brisk sales at the new location.
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In 1995, Wendl sold 102 Maverick Market stores to Coastal Mart Co., a subsidiary of the Houston-based Coastal Corp. As Wendl said, at 63 years old he wasn't getting any younger and wanted to sell when he didn't have to sell. Around 2000, Coastal Corp. was acquired by El Paso Corp., which wasn't interested in operating convenience stores. Susser Holdings stepped in and bought the stores two weeks before 9/11, and eventually the stores became Stripes. Wendl died in 2012 at 80 years old.
After his death, wife Elvira recalled his deep love for South Texas.
"Erich loved this community," she said in 2012. "He was really happy here with many friends." She shared that when someone would comment on his German accent, his response was always: "I'm Texan by choice."
A maverick, if you will.
Allison Ehrlich writes about things to do in South Texas and has a weekly Throwback Thursday column on local history. Support local coverage like this by checking out our subscription options and special offers at Caller.com/subscribe